A favorite New Testament passage is the story of the “Good Shepherd” in John chapter 10. Jesus tells the story of the Good Shepherd while standing on the steps of the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. This Sunday’s reading recounts the first half of this famous Gospel story. To modern readers, the story that Jesus retells is a straightforward analogy – Jesus is to the disciples what the Good Shepherd is to his flock.
But Jesus is also telling a more exciting story.
As Jesus stands by the outer courtyard, he says in 10:1, Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. What most English bibles translate as sheepfold (or sheep’s pen) is aule in Greek. The term ‘aule’ is generic – it can mean a yard, a courtyard, or a pen for animals. Hence, Jesus literally states, whoever does not enter the courtyard through the gate is a thief and a robber. Jesus uses the term as a double-entendre. Sheep must enter a fenced sheepfold through a gate. In preaching as he stands astride one of the Temple’s enormous gates, Jesus suggests that to enter into the Temple, which is a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, one has to go through Jesus – since he obstructs passage to the courtyard as he is preaching to people on the steps and in the outer precinct of the Temple.
What people cannot do, in order to enter the courtyard, is attempt to jump over the enormous stone wall that is a perimeter to the Temple courtyard. Yet this is what Jesus ellliptically suggests occurred, when he suggests, whoever does not enter… through the gate is a thief and a robber.
But who is Jesus referring to when he speaks of the thief and the robber? Is it Bar Abbas – the man who was condemned to death, but then subsequently released (rather than Jesus) at Pilate’s trial? This is the thesis of some biblical scholars. Bar Abbas is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts. Matthew the Evangelist says Bar Abbas was a notorious prisoner. John the Evangelist calls him a thief. Consider the passage from the Evangelist Mark at verse 15:7: ην δε ο λεγομενος βαραββας μετα των στασιαστων δεδεμενος οιτινες εν τη στασει φονον πεποιηκεισαν. Mark tells us, with no further explanation, that Bar Abbas had committed murder (φονον) in the riot (στασει). Some scholars believe the riot was a failed attempt by Bar Abbas, a truly notorious criminal, to storm the Temple in Jerusalem.
If Jesus is referring to Bar Abbas, then what is he trying to say? In verse 4 he states that only His sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. In other words, his true disciples know who the Son of Man is, and they are not about to be misled by thieves and robbers who storm the Temple courtyard.
Jesus also refers to himself as gatekeeper in verse 10:3. As he stood at the steps of the temple, astride the entrance to the courtyard, he is referring to himself as the one who provides access to the sheepfold. His listeners, who combine the spoken words of Jesus, the current events of which they aware, and the symbolism as to where Jesus is standing, can more fully understand precisely who Jesus is – the Good Shepherd – and who he is not (a thief or a robber).